I’m writing a story with a character faced with a moment of excruciating loss of a someone close and I’ve been chewing on the concept of loss to better understand how to appropriately frame it and eventually, have that character come to terms and accept it. The simple fact that someone who was here isn’t anymore misses the wide spectrum of deafening emotions that explode when tragic loss is experienced, regardless of how it occurs. I think from the very foundation, we’ve been viewing loss all wrong. First off, I think the term, “loss” is far too simplistic to drive home what an entire relationship, what another person means to another. I think it’s more adequate to call them endings for a number of reasons, first of them because endings naturally connote that there was a story before, and that means so much more than simply having.
It also allows us to see that endings aren’t some unique event that happens as if something is reaching in and violating the harmony in our life. It’s attached to the very function of how we exist. This is because we exist in that odd moment between what was and what will be. The sensation we feel when we outstretch our hands is the point where we come come into contact with the future. That microscopic plane, that razor thin point on our nerve endings is where our exceptions, hopes, and dreams smash into the reality of our present. The deviation, the difference is the amplitude of how life is felt on an emotional level, good and bad. Life can be summarized as our perpetual attempt to try and reconcile the difference in what we expect to feel, and what we actually do. Viewing them as endings also drive me want to attach the word “premature” before them, as to why they’re specifically so painful. However, that draws a line exactly back to the beginning of how our expectations cast shadows reaching much further into the future, but our expectations smash into reality proving my point.
I’ve never been one to toot Stoicism’s horn, but there are many trails blazed to here from dealing with endings. For 2000 years stoicism has been the philosophy to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.
“For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast – a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it? A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.” - Seneca, Essays and Letters
Stoicism draws a hard line between wants and needs and pushes everything across the line to the wants side. I could lose my family, I could lose my house, my job, and yet life would go on. I could become a panhandler and live under a bridge in Los Angeles covered in mud and yet, life will go on. I could eat stale chunks of bread and drink water out of a dog bowl and my heart will keep beating and my life will continue.
That’s not good enough for me or the character I’m writing.
In my personal opinion, that feels like a more sumptuous way of saying, “Shit happens.” I also think that building some sort of equivalency between things in my life and the relationships we have completely waters down just how profound of an impact relationships have on a person. We’re wrapped up and swirled together with superglue. Being torn from someone isn’t the same as being laid off, there’s a distinct tearing everywhere that ends up leaving all my nerve endings so sensitive they ring out in anguish. Once that initial shock subsides, we have this achy absence that we feel like we can never fill.
There is an enormous difference between experiencing the absence of someone, and the absence of experiencing them. If that is confusing, think about how you felt before you met someone you later come to love and then how you feel once they are gone. I believe that the absence, is an inherent part of the experience. But just because something isn’t present, doesn’t mean it isn’t continuing to have an impact on out lives. So is it really an ending? The current way our relationship swirls and spins does indeed end, but something else, something different continues. If our lives are a song, all of our different relationships are part of a backing track. Suddenly without a single one of them, there’s a noticeable difference, but the song must continue and in many ways we have to fill in the gaps. There is a noticeable ending of them being there, but a specific part of them continues and the song sounds different, but it continues to be played.
Think of a mentor, think of a teacher who challenges you, who almost molds you like a potter does clay. The dynamic in that sort of relationship is far different than a romantic one, but in a romantic one, the acclimation built up is similar in a way and eventually it will be thrust outward and challenged. It comes off depressing for some, but at so many points along our lives, everything everyone we know, everything we have, we will end up losing eventually. And those things and people we don’t lose, they will end up losing us instead. I only think it’s depressing if you look back and realize that you haven’t appreciated how important relationships are in our lives and treated people as such. For many, the silver lining of endings, specifically with death is found with the hope in the afterlife, meeting again. However, that’s essentially a ignoring that endings exist. What if the belief in that afterlife wanes? What if you get to a point where you realize that those you lose, you will never ever get back? Is the belief in the afterlife becoming a rug that we can sweep things under? Shouldn’t that force us to start treating all relationships differently?
I’ve experienced a couple of lives, but a majority of the endings I’ve dealt with have been relationships. I don’t know what the death of a parent feels like, I don’t know what the death of a child feels like, but I can only draw from what I know. Something sticks out to me when I try to marinate on the idea of relationship ending. Especially how many times there is anger directed at the person instead of about the person. But this anger seems to manifest from somewhere combined with a frustration that it feels like all the hard work put into the relationship leading up to now is a waste. For example, I’ve heard multiple times that if a relationship doesn’t get to a certain point such as marriage, then it is essentially meaningless. I’ve had multiple former lovers mention that line to me before on different occasions. Normally this is when they’re trying to pressure me into the idea of marriage. Even though I most certainly have a positive perspective on marriage, I’ve never agreed with this assumption. I do have to admit though, I understand where they’re coming from. Putting a couple years into something only to see it end. It feels like you put so much effort and planning into a trip, only to see the flights get cancelled.
This is why I think movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are so powerful. There’s this desire to completely wipe away an old relationship that’s ended. But as you start to rewind time and explore them, you begin to see things you never want to forget, and how they changed you. Some of the biggest moments of growth for a person don’t happen when they’re exclusively single, many times it happens at the moments of blissful entrances and painful exits into and from relationships. Adjusting to having a person there, then adjusting being by yourself. Furthermore, it’s not just the movements that have importance, but even the times between that carry meaningful weight. Many times, those specific experiences, it would be fundamentally impossible to experience them without another person.
This is where I’m trying to view things little holistically. A romantic relationship that ends isn’t any more of a waste than a friendship with a friend who dies. They feel like small little lifetimes in and of themselves, little universes blasting into momentary existence only to disappear a few moments later. Absolutely tragic, but happy and thankful they happened nonetheless.
Performance art is something that’s been quite alien for me, but to be honest I’ve really been getting into Marina Abramović’s work recently. In 2012, HBO released a documentary about her life and the buildup to her 2010 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist is Present. I highly suggest checking out the full documentary, its extremely profound in many ways, but there’s a smaller subplot about her relationship with Ulay(Uwe Laysiepen) that stood out to me. The backstory is that they had a romantic relationship in the 70s where they were also partners in performance art while living out a van for 5 years as they traveled through Europe together. Their relationship came to a screeching halt in the 80s and as a final exclamation point of on the relationship, they decided to walk from opposing ends of The Great Wall of china to meet in the middle for one final embrace. To signify the journey shared and the relationship ending. Suddenly, that drunken text you sent to your ex doesn’t seem to compare.
In her piece in 2010, The Artist is Present, she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. A rough deconstruction of the performance is this almost mystical intimacy that comes when two people share eye contact. Many spectators were pushed to tears. In the documentary, it really showcases how it affects the spectators’ emotions on a level they weren’t expecting. Watch what happens when Uley shows up by surprise and sits with her as a spectator in the video below.
That emotion, that million mile-an-hour realization that overwhelms her is the summation of all that time together. Now you could say, that reaction happened only because they met again. True, but that reaction also happened because the buried meaning was brought to the surface, it’s been down there since 1988. That meaning may be good, that meaning may be bad, but there’s no denying their fingerprints still remain on each other even after their relationship ends. That’s why it’s ok that endings exist, because they always leave something else behind. We all have that, someone else’s fingerprints, someone else’s signature. It’s within us somewhere and that absence is just a different way to experience them. Nothing is a waste, no matter how short, but all things will end eventually, for us or for others. As a result, new things will come and the best thing we can do is to just be present and live in the here and now and not wander too far to what was or what will be.